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Steelers Training Camp Preview: Defensive Line

July 24, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency, Players

July 24, 2009
By John DeWald and Donald Starver

Training camp is now less than 2 weeks away, so it is time to take a look at what we are likely to see in Latrobe.

The Steelers will bring 82 players into training camp.  Those players will compete for spots on the final 53-man roster.

In this series, we are going to look at each each position and evaluate who is likely to make the roster.  We will start with the defensive line.

In his first year as head coach, Mike Tomlin carried 6 defensive linemen on the team’s roster, 2 nose tackles and 4 defensive ends.  Last year they increased it to 7 defensive linemen (2 nose tackles and 5 defensive ends).  If we assume that Tomlin and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will remain true to history, then the Steelers will probably carry 6-7 defensive linemen on this year’s 53-man roster.

Orpheus Roye has retired, so that opens up one spot on the roster.  However, the Steelers brought in Ziggy Hood and Ra’Shon Harris through the draft, and Steve McLendon through free agency.  They also have Scott Paxson and Jordan Reffett from the practice squad.  That means there are 11 players vying for 6-7 roster openings.

Let’s  start with the most important position on a 3-4 defensive line, the nose tackle.

Casey Hampton - “Big Snack” is the incumbent at nose tackle, and he will be the starter at the position this year.  Even if he comes to training camp weighing 6,000 pounds, Hampton is the starter.

This is a contract year for Hampton, and after being out of shape at the beginning of training camp last year, he is reportedly training harder this off-season.

I have read comments on various Steelers message boards claiming that Hampton is too old, too out of shape, too unmotivated, etc.  This is pure nonsense.  Hampton is still one of the best in the NFL at what he does.  Moreover, the Steelers did not draft a nose tackle, nor did they sign one as a free agent.  Hampton is a lock.  Count on it.

Chris Hoke - Hoke has been Casey Hampton’s backup for the past 5 years.  He filled in admirably when Hampton was lost for the season in 2004.  Moreover, the Steelers didn’t miss a beat anytime he came in for Hampton last year.  Hoke lacks the size and strength of Casey Hampton, but he makes up for it with pure tenacity.  Hoke is guaranteed to be the backup nose tackle this season.

Scott Paxson - Paxson is listed as a nose tackle, despite being smaller than most of the Steelers’ defensive ends.  After signing as an undrafted free agent 3 years ago, Paxson spent his first 2 years and part of last year on the practice squad.  He has used up his practice squad eligibility, so for him it is 53-man roster or bust.  Sorry Scott.  It’s been nice knowing you, but your days as a Steeler are likely over.

Moving to the defensive end position, first up is……..

Aaron Smith - Smith may be the most under-appreciated (outside of Pittsburgh) defensive lineman in the NFL.  Smith may be the best DE in Steelers history.  That is saying a lot.  Smith is 33, and he’s signed through 2011.  Unless he breaks both legs, his spot on the 53 man roster is assured.


Brett Keisel - Keisel is also in a contract year.  He has made no secret of the fact that he would like an extension, and that he wants to end his career as a Steeler.  As the incumbent starter, Keisel’s roster spot is safe.

Evander (Ziggy) Hood - The Steelers didn’t draft the DT out of Missouri in the 1st round in order to place him on the practice squad.  To quote Kevin Colbert “He’s a special guy, he really is….He was somebody we felt good about from the first time we scouted him.  There’s so many superlatives about this kid.  We’re excited to get him”.  Not only will Hood make the roster, he will also see playing time (though not as a starter) in his rookie year.

Ziggy Hood

With Hampton, Hoke, Smith, Keisel, and Hood pretty much guaranteed roster postitions, and Scott Paxson almost guaranteed to be released, that leaves 5 players vying for the remaining 1-2 roster spots.

Nick Eason - A career backup, Eason signed as a free agent 2 years ago.  While not spectacular, Eason was solid in his play last season.  He is only 29, but his play has not been strong enough to lock in a roster spot.  He is going to have to have a good training camp to hold off the competition.

Travis Kirschke - Kirschke will be 35 years old this season.  In NFL terms, he may as well be a brontosaurus.  However, he filled in quite well for Brett Keisel last season, registering 46 tackles and 2 sacks.  He may not be as fast as he was 10 years ago, but Kirschke knows Dick LeBeau’s defense, and that is a big advantage.  Despite his age, I am betting that Kirschke holds off the young guys and makes the team.

Steve McLendon - Signed as an undrafted free agent from Troy, McLendon is a long shot to make the team.  His small school background, combined with the fact that he is the smallest of all of the Steelers’ defensive linemen, gives McLendon a small chance of making the team.  Enjoy your time in training camp, Steve.   You won’t be on the roster in September.

Jordan Reffett - Reffett signed as an undrafted free agent last year and spent time on the practice squad.  Reffett still has practice squad eligibility, so that is his most likely home.

Ra’Shon Harris - Drafted in the 6th round out of Oregon, Harris has good physical tools, but he was inconsistent in college.  The Steelers essentially took a 6th round flyer on him to see if there was enough talent there to mold into a good lineman.

Ra'Shon Harris

So there you have it.  We believe that Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke, Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, and Travis Kirschke are going to make the 53 man roster.  If the Steelers keep 6 defensive linemen like they did in 2007, then that will be it.  If they keep 7 like they did in 2008, then Harris, Reffett, McLendon, Paxson, and Eason will battle for the final roster spot.

So readers, what do you think?  Do you agree with our analysis?  Can Travis Kirschke hold onto a roster spot despite his age?  Who will snag the 7th roster spot if the Steelers decide to keep seven defensive linemen?  We want to hear from you.

To read part 2 of this series, click here.

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Steelers veterans at risk

June 15, 2009 By: Admin Category: Players

June 15, 2009
By Donald Starver

Recently, one of our readers asked us “which Steelers veteran is likely to lose his job in 2009?”.  I answered the question in the comments section of one of our articles, but I thought the question was interesting enough to expound upon further.

The Steelers will convene for training camp on July 31, and competition will begin for roster spots.  The Steelers brought in some veteran free agents, and they had an exceptional draft.  Both factors mean that the roster is likely to undergo some changes.

As we look ahead to what is likely to happen in training camp, a couple of names come to mind who may be at risk.

The first name that comes to mind is Carey Davis.  Davis has managed to maintain a roster position since 2007.  However, going into 2009, the numbers may not work in Davis’ favor.  Davis finds himself behind Willie Parker, Mewelde Moore, and Rashard Mendenhall on the depth chart.  The Steelers drafted Frank Summers from UNLV, and he appears to be the Steelers’ short yardage back of the future.

To further compound Davis’ problems, he is officially listed as a fullback, and Steelers’ offensive coordinator Bruce Arians doesn’t really use the fullback position in his offensive scheme.  Arians prefers to utilize an H-back as the primary blocker in the backfield.  He has returning veteran Sean McHugh at that position, and has added promising rookie David Johnson from Arkansas State in the draft.

When you compare all of the players vying for time in the Steelers’ backfield, Carey Davis seems to be last in the pecking order.  When the music stops, Davis is likely to find himself without a chair.

RB Carey Davis

RB Carey Davis

The next Steelers player in the crosshairs is probably Trai Essex.  Essex was drafted by the Steelers back in 2005.  Former Steelers offensive line coach Russ Grimm seemed to have a lot of confidence in Essex.  Essex never broke into the starting lineup, but he made himself valuable by learning to play multiple positions along the offensive line.  “Position flexibility” is something that current Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin clearly values.  However, how long will the Steelers remain patient with a player who has not been able to break into the starting lineup despite playing for an offensive line that is often criticized for lacking talent?

In my opinion, the fact that Essex was not able to win Kendall Simmons’ starting position at right guard when Simmons went down with an injury, may have been the final nail in Essex’ coffin.  Instead of winning Simmons’ position, Essex was beat out by undrafted free agent Darnell Stapleton.

With the addition of young talent like Kraig Urbik and A.Q. Shipley to the Steelers’ offensive line competition, Essex may finally find himself on the outside looking in.

Another Steeler player who may find himself on the endangered species list is Charlie Batch.

Batch is a quality backup quarterback who seems to embrace the backup role.  Unlike Byron Leftwich, who openly proclaimed that he wanted to compete for a starting position, Batch seems content to be a backup.  The fact that Batch is from the Pittsburgh area probably enhances his contentment.


Unfortunately, Batch has a young lion named Dennis Dixon challenging him for the #2 position.  Dixon is a very talented young quarterback who might have won the Heisman Trophy had he not suffered a season-ending injury during his final year at Oregon.

If Dixon can show that he has mastered the playbook, he is likely to overtake Batch on the Steelers’ depth chart.  If that happens, Batch’s career will likely be over.  As a 12 year veteran, Batch doesn’t have much gas left in his tank.  He makes too much money to be a viable #3 quarterback, so rather than retain him as the third quarterback on the roster, the Steelers would probably release him and develop Kevin McCabe or Mike Reilly to be #3.

Hopefully, Batch realizes that his future is completely in Dennis Dixon’s hands.

Another player who may find himself at risk is Tyrone Carter.  Carter has always been small for the safety position.  There are plenty of 5’9″ cornerbacks in the NFL, but you don’t find many safeties that size.  Moreover, you don’t find many strong safeties who only weigh 195 lbs.  Tyrone Carter falls into both categories.  That can’t be a good thing.

Two factors may make Carter expendable.  The first is the development (or lack thereof) of Ryan Mundy.  Mundy is younger, taller, and heavier than Carter.  If Mundy shows his potential in training camp, Carter will be sweating bullets.

The second factor that may make Carter expendable is Deshea Townsend’s ability to pick up the safety position.  I have often said that Townsend would make a great free safety, and that moving to the position would help extend his career.  Townsend is one of the most intelligent players on the Steelers’ roster.  He has never been the fastest player on the field, or the most talented.  However, Townsend is rarely out of position.  That is the primary requirement of a free safety.  Just ask Anthony Smith.

Tom Brady & Tyrone Carter

Tom Brady & Tyrone Carter

Two factors may save Carter.  Firstly, Townsend is two years older than him.  So age is on Carter’s side.  The second is the fact that the Steelers just don’t have many safeties on the roster.  Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, and Tyrone Carter are the only  safeties on the Steelers’ roster with NFL experience.  Thus, Tyrone Carter may be saved by the lack of viable competition.

The final veteran who may find himself at risk is Travis Kirschke.  Kirschke is the oldest player on the Steelers’ roster.  Despite not getting much playing time, Kirschke usually performs well when given the opportunity.  He knows the defense, and does his job when called upon.  Unfortunately, time waits for no man.  The Steelers need to get younger at the defensive line positions.  Kirschke will be 35 years old next season, and finding a young replacement for him will help the Steelers in the future.

So who do you fans think will NOT be on the Steelers’ roster when the season starts?  Do you agree with our assessment?  If not, why not?  We’d love to hear your comments.

(If you enjoyed this article, please consider leaving a comment below. Also, please subscribe to our blog by pressing the orange button below. Thanks.)

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Steelers vs. Patriots Key Match-ups

November 29, 2008 By: Admin Category: Pre-Game Analyses

Before reading this week’s key match-ups, please read my Steelers-Patriots Preview.  Also, you may want to read our reports on Patriots’ QB Matt Cassel and Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick.

This week, the Steelers will face their perennial AFC rivals the New England Patriots. Anytime you are discussing AFC supremacy, these two teams are likely to be included in the conversation.

Both teams need a win this weekend to stay in the race for division titles.  The Steelers are one game ahead of the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North, but the Ravens play the Cincinnati Bengals this weekend, and will probably get a win.  Meanwhile, the Patriots are one game behind the New York Jets in the AFC East.  They need a win to stay within striking distance of the Jets.

These are the match-ups that I believe will have the highest likelihood of impacting the outcome of the game.

Steelers’ linebackers James Harrison & LaMarr Woodley vs. Patriots’ QB Matt Cassel

We all know that Matt Cassel has been a more than adequate replacement for Tom Brady.  However, Cassel has really not faced many above average defenses.  The toughest defense that he’s faced this year is the Indianapolis Colts, and he lost that game.  The Steelers’s defense is much better than the Colts.

Cassel had proven to be susceptible to pressure.  He’s been sacked even more often than Ben Roethlisberger has this year (and I didn’t think that was possible).  That has got to have Steelers’ linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley watering at the mouth.  Each is among the NFL’s leaders in sacks, and they have a friendly competition going against one another.  They’ll both be looking forward to adding to their sack count against Matt Cassel.  Advantage: Steelers.

CB Ike Taylor vs WR Randy Moss.

Despite his hands of stone, Ike Taylor is one of the best cover corners in the NFL.  He has the size and speed to guard even the biggest and fastest receivers.  He’ll need every ounce of his size and speed this week when he faces Randy Moss.  Moss epitomizes the tall, fast receiver.  If there is a receiver in the NFL who is more dangerous than Randy Moss, I don’t know who he is.  After a terrible stint with the Raiders, Moss has been reborn with the Patriots.  This may be the best match-up of the game. Advantage: Patriots

Steelers’ defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau vs. Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick

One of the best match-ups of the game won’t even take place on the field.  Instead, it will take place along the sidelines as Steelers’ defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau matches wits with Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick.  Belichick has owned the Steelers since he became head coach of the Patriots.  Some would argue that his success is due to his cheating, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Belichick runs a complicated 3-4 defensive scheme, so he is not as unfamiliar with what LeBeau does as many opponents are.  Belichick always develops game plans that are perfectly crafted to beat the Steelers.  Against any other foe, Dick LeBeau would have the advantage, but against the mad scientist Bill Belichick, well……… Advantage: Patriots.

WR Santontio Holmes vs. Patriots’ CB Deltha O’Neal

Deltha O’Neal couldn’t guard the Steelers’ receivers when he was a young cornerback playing for the Cincinnati Bengals.  He certainly can’t contain them as a 75 year old cornerback for the Patriots.  Unless Holmes breaks his leg during the game, he should burn O’Neal like firewood.  Advantage: Steelers.

DE Travis Kirschke vs. G Logan Mankins

It’s not often that Travis Kirschke’s name is mentioned as a key match-up.  However, this week he will play a pivotal role in the game.  Starter Brett Keisel is out with an injury, and Kirschke will be called upon to fill in for him.  Kirschke must hold stout against the run in order for the Steelers to contain the Patriots offense.  Kirschke, along with backup defensive ends Nick Eason and Orpheus Roye, have played surprisingly well each time they’ve been called upon this season.  Advantage: Neither.

Steelers’C Justin Hartwig vs. Patriots’ NT Vince Wilfork

Justin Hartwig was brought in to handle the big AFC nose tackles who seemed to overpower Sean Mahan last year.  Hartwig has held his own so far, but he will receive a good test from Patriots’ nose tackle Vince Wilfork.  Wilfork is a former 1st round draft pick, and at 6’2″ 325 lbs, he is built very similar to Steelers’ NT Casey Hampton.  He is short for his size, which allows him to get under his blockers and use incredible leverage to collapse the line of scrimmage.

Hartwig has held his own against Browns’ NT Shawn Rogers and Chargers’ NT Jamal Williams, two of the best in the game.  Moreover, he practices everyday against Steelers’ NT Casey Hampton, so he should should be well prepared for his battle with Wilfork.  Advantage: Neither.

Overall, I anticipate that the Steelers’ defense will contain the Patriots’ offense, while the Steelers’ offense overwhelms the Patriots’ defense.  Final score prediction: Steelers 24, Patriots 14.

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